A Christmas story

GLOWERING at the television screen in front of him, crushing the can of his third beer of the afternoon in his hand, Graham closed his eyes to summon patience and took in a deep, anguished breath. “Tough break, Gray,” sighed the great, hulking, highly irritating bulk to his left, infuriatingly. “Mario Kart is a game of skill, my friend, and it seems you just haven’t got it.”

A large belch followed this obliviously aggravating remark, and Graham’s housemate started the process of moving out of his seat, thought better of it, and cracked open another lager from the six-pack which was already four short and sitting snugly between his chair and a carelessly packed overnight bag.

“Another one for the road won’t do any harm,” Charles said to no one in particular, changing the channel nonchalantly to a vintage festive edition of Family Fortunes. Graham huffed uselessly in protest to the choice of programme, and instead of subjecting his eyes to the gameshow, surveyed the poky room in which they were both stuffed. Charles was again making himself comfortable, twisting and turning like a dog in its basket, in the best seat in the place, beside the portable heater and closest to the TV.

A man of solid, dependable heft that was once rugby-player muscle but was now, only a few short years out of his fee-paying school, getting a bit soft around the edges, he appeared, in Graham’s irked state, to consume the modest chair he was seated in, his pink goose-bumped belly protruding from his slightly too tight t-shirt. His apparent lack of discomfort only endeavoured to make Graham feel even colder and grumpier than he already was.

To his right, beside the bay window which always remained slightly ajar due to its age and consequent weathering, was pretty much the only Christmas decoration in the room, apart from the foil Quality Street wrappers that provided colourful foliage on the carpet beneath each seat. It had seemed hilarious a few weeks ago to dress the three-foot plastic tree in empty beer cans and shove their housemate’s Michael ‘Tea’ Higgins tea-cosy on top, with a halved beer mat stuck on either side to represent angel wings.

Hilarious too, to attach fairy lights crudely to the wall in a tangled mess, encircling the novelty advent calendar they had found in a discount shop and modified with cartoons of their friends in place of the nativity scene. So very entertaining indeed, until he discovered that he would be working first thing on St. Stephen’s Day and wouldn’t make it home for Christmas. That had quickly put a dampener on all their ironic mirth, and now he was wistful for the wholesome traditions of old.

Having moved to Dublin from the West the previous September to embark on a Masters degree in Obscure American Literature of the Beat Generation, Graham had taken a part-time job in a nearby service station, in which he regularly let hours go by studying and making small talk with customers, often repeating the same old phrases explaining that the extortionate prices weren’t his personal fault and yes, Putin did have something coming to him and then some.

He took in a decent bit of money each week to supplement his general living expenses, but the downside was that the manager Pavel, with whom he’d had a recent run-in over conflicting views as to what constituted an emergency urgent enough to drop all tools, had mercilessly assigned him the anti-social hours. While Pavel agreed with calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, which his generous donations to UNICEF proved, he didn’t appreciate happening upon a shut-up shop with a sign pasted to the door saying “Free Palestine”.

Graham still maintained that joining the march to protest the war was a non-negotiable duty to human rights and he would do it again, but Pavel had the freedom to have him take care of the holiday shift, and with three children under five excited about the holidays, had absolutely no guilt assigning Graham to the Christmas shifts. Returning to the brown-hued flat that evening after work, having spent Christmas Day there all alone, would be distinctly depressing.

“What time is it mate, I probably shouldn’t miss the last DART to Dalkey, the ’rents would go ape,” yawned Charles, only half listening to the answer as he turned his head back to the screen and readjusted his seating arrangement, swinging a nimble leg, oiled by years of kicking balls over high bars, onto the arm.

“It’s only nearly six, what has happened to your sense of time?” replied Graham.

“Awesome, I actually thought it was closer to nine,” said Charles, to which Graham rolled his eyes while walking to the fridge, located in the tiny kitchenette off the living room, to survey its contents.

Might as well be as miserable as miserable can be, he had thought as he did his shopping earlier that day, stocking up only on a bag of cans, a couple of bottles of wine and a home cooked microwaveable turkey meal for one. In addition, there was a package sent by his concerned mother and sisters containing his present and some biscuits, chocolate and other such goodies, but he was intent on making the day as glum as possible. True, he was getting home the following week for New Year, but it just wasn’t the same.

“Maybe this experience will add gravitas to my thesis, it’s sure to imbue me with real feelings of hardship,” he mused from the glow of the refrigerator.

“Yeah, I know, definitely, yup, totally,” replied Charles, who had been listening to Graham complain for days now and, being all set to head the short distance home himself, was neither inclined to add weight to the argument or engage with it in any way. He was too busy now watching The Snowman anyway, with the sound-track of Mission: Impossible playing instead of the original background music…

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